Vincent's Starry Night and Other Stories:
A Children's History of Art

Michael Bird

illustrated by Kate Evans
Laurence King 2016

A Journey Through Art: A Global History

Aaron Rosen

illustrated by Lucy Dalzell
Thames and Hudson 2018
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020
With sixty-eight engaging short stories about a diverse range of artists, Michael Bird's Vincent's Starry Night: A Children's History of Art is a fantastic way for children to learn some history. Each story begins with a full-page reproduction of a single work of art and then has three pages of fairly solid text, with small marginal illustrations, recounting an episode in the artist's life.
"The new magnifying glass is bigger than the old one. Johannes Vermeer lifts the lens in its wooden frame and holds it at arm's length. He's fascinated by the way things look through a lens. Clearer. Stranger. ..."

The perspective is most often that of the central figure, but sometimes that of a more peripheral figure: the story about Claude Monet is told by Berthe Morisot in the first person, for example, and El Anatsui's story is presented from the perspective of one of his workshop assistants. For periods where suitable historical figures are unknown, Bird creates a protagonist:

"Phirun was too young to remember a time when the great temple was not being built. His father was only a boy when the first stone was laid at Angkor Wat 30 years ago. But Pajan Yan the elephant would surely remember. Perhaps she had been alive when the city of Angkor was just a village surrounded by rice paddies. She was very old."

Often the focus is on an immediate, local vignette — Caravaggio getting his jailors to bring him better food by giving them gambling tips, for example, or David being called on to paint the dead Marat — but broader biographical and historical information is worked into that.

The chapters are grouped into eight chronological sections, each with a one page introduction giving some broad historical context. Each section also contains a double-page spread about a key city — Athens around 432 BC, Angkor Wat in the 1100s, Florence in the 1400s, Amsterdam in the 1600s, London in the early 1800s, Paris in the late 1800s, Moscow in the 1930s, and New York in the 1950s — with a map and drawings of buildings. This helps to balance the focus of the stories on individuals.

"Florence grew up on the banks of the River Arno in central Italy. In the 14th and 15th centuries it was a proudly independent, prosperous city where bankers and merchants made great fortunes. They spent huge sums on buildings and works of art that expressed the new spirit of the age."
"In front of the Palazzao Vecchio is the Piazza della Signoria (Square of the Signoria), an open space where statues by Donatello, Michelangelo, and other sculptors were displayed."

All of this helps to make Vincent's Starry Night accessible to children without much of a historical framework, but it will also work to broaden what historical knowledge they have.

There's relatively little about the development of techniques and styles, but this too is worked into the stories.

"What interests Donatello most, though, is another of the problems Brunelleschi has solved. Suppose you want to draw a shape on a flat surface so that it looks three-dimensional. Everyone knows that the further away something is, the smaller it appears to be. But it was Brunelleschi who devised an ingenious method for showing this in a drawing. Using a ruler, he drew straight, slanting lines that came together at a vanishing point."

And there's a good spread temporally — the mid-point of the book falls around 1750, between Lorrain and Vermeer — and geographically, with a still Eurocentric canon given a global admixture.

In a similar way to Bird's "city spreads", Aaron Rosen's A Journey Through Art centres locations rather than people, with 30 four-page chapters focused on specific places and times, from "Nawarla Gabarnmung c. 35,000 BCE: A Palace in a Cave" through to "Rio de Janeiro 2020: Looking to the Future".

The main text in each chapter largely covers general historical and cultural background: the chapter "Seoul 2000", for example, touches on Korea's 20th century history and its modern status as a cutting-edge, high-tech tiger economy. But half of each chapter consists of four to six illustrations, with captions, which highlight a few specific works and artists.

"JeeYoung Lee's works look as though they are made in Photoshop, but she builds them all by hand in her tiny studio in Seoul. She imagines wide-open spaces that seem possible only in dreams. Gamer suggests that the best virtual reality is in our imaginations, not in video games."

A Journey Through Art is not as engaging as Vincent's Starry Night, where my daughter got involved enough in the stories to want to know what happened to the people afterwards, but its small chunks help to make it accessible.

September 2020

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%T Vincent's Starry Night and Other Stories
%S A Children's History of Art
%A Bird, Michael
%Q Evans, Kate
%I Laurence King
%D 2016
%O hardcover, illustrations, index
%G ISBN-13 9781780676159
%P 336pp

%T A Journey Through Art
%S A Global History
%A Rosen, Aaron
%Q Dalzell, Lucy
%I Thames and Hudson
%D 2018
%O hardcover, illustrated
%G ISBN-13 9780500651018
%P 143pp